Jot pursuit: Graffiti chase may have violated policy
Nearly three weeks after a reporter asked the sheriff of Augusta County for any dashboard camera videos of his department's 90-mile-per-hour pursuit of a graffiti suspect, the sheriff says he doesn't have any. But he did eventually produce a procedure manual, one that appears to have been violated with a March 2 pursuit.
"No videos exist in my agency of any pursuit involving [the suspects]," Sheriff Randall Fisher writes in a March 29 email, which comes nearly a month after a reporter began asking questions about the March 2 chase that reportedly traversed at least 15 miles, crossed three jurisdictions, blew through eight red lights, and wound up in a residential area.
For nearly a month, the Sheriff declined to respond to repeated voice-mails asking his opinion of such a potentially risky pursuit for an alleged spray-painter whose identity was already known. Only after a phone call from the Freedom of Information Council in Richmond did Fisher respond.
He claims that the pursuit conforms to his department's policy manual. As for his failure to respond within five days, as the Freedom of Information Act requires, he didn't address the near daily phone calls and says only that he declines to open emails marked as junk or spam.
What the sheriff did eventually produce is the mugshot of the captured suspect, an 18-year-old woman named Sahvannah Lorain Nargi of Bridgewater, who–- along with 24-year-old Christopher Lee Holcomb of Staunton–- stands accused of vandalizing several downtown Staunton businesses with spray-painted terms including "anarchy" and "chaos."
More promptly forthcoming was Staunton police spokesperson Lisa Klein, who reveals that a Staunton Police investigator executed a search warrant earlier in the day on March 2 that led to the arrest of Holcomb and the identification of Nargi as a suspect.
According to Klein, Staunton investigator Christopher Hartless was also present at the gas station on Lee-Jackson Highway in Verona when Nargi was spotted. Unlike the Augusta deputy, however, Hartless didn't pursue, says Klein.
"Our policy," explains Klein, "is only to pursue for violent felonies."
And that's just the kind of policy one mother wishes every law enforcement body would adopt. Candy Priano knows all too well about the collateral damage such chases can cause.
Eight years ago, Priano lost her 15-year-old daughter when the honor student was fatally injured in the back of the family minivan when it was struck as they drove to a basketball game. The suspect chased that day in 2002–- a teen driving her mother's car without permission–- was released within hours.
"Putting the public at risk for a non-violent crime," says Priano, "is just not worth it."
The issue of police pursuits gained widespread Charlottesville attention last year after the City released a dashcam video showing how one of its officers pursued a suspected speeder in August at velocities up to 85mph on residential Rugby Road. The speeder turned out to be a teen burglary suspect, who was apprehended. But not until two months later–- long after the pursuit caused over $100,000 in damage and nearly claimed several lives, including the occupants of the house unroofed by the fleeing vehicle.
More recently, a passenger in a vehicle chased for speeding lost his life in Louisa when a deputy's pursuit ended against a tree. The passenger, 22-year-old James J. Wolf Jr., of Powhatan, died March 14.
For Priano, an even more recent Virginia chase hits remarkably close to home because it was a t-bone crash like the one that killed her daughter. Priano found her sadness compounded by reading online commenters blaming the victim for allegedly failing to be alert in the face of lights and sirens.
"What they don't realize," says Priano, "is that we innocent bystanders don't hear the siren."
Anthony L. Taylor probably didn't. On March 24, the 44-year-old Richmond preacher lost his life just three blocks from his sanctuary, the United House of Prayer for All People, when a chase initiated at a random traffic check-point crossed jurisdictional lines.
The public doesn't understand that emergency lights and sirens–- blaring as they do–- are often hundreds of yards behind the pursued car, Priano says.
If it were easy to hear sirens, Priano says, then over 4,500 innocent bystanders since 1992 might have spared a violent premature death. She cites a recent study that found that only 24 percent of drivers can hear and determine the direction of a speeding police car. And that, she says, is when the siren is coming from directly in front or behind.
"We all know about this when we drive," says Priano. "The siren's right on top of you, and you jump."
A local firefighter learned this the hard way around 7:30am on Monday, March 29. On his way to a brush fire near Keswick, a tanker-driving member of the East Rivanna Volunteer Fire Company encountered a line of traffic in the opposite direction–- with the first car stopped.
"It started a chain-reaction," says County spokesperson Lee Catlin. "A truck couldn't stop in time and went sideways into the lane and broadside; and so in order to miss him, the firetruck swerved into the ditch and rolled."
The firefighter's decision may have totaled a $340,000 vehicle, but at the same time, Catlin suspects, the seatbelt-wearing firefighter may have saved his own life and almost certainly avoided killing the truck driver in his lane.
It's hard to find supporters of police chases for suspects of property crimes–- although at least one does exist locally. After the late-night house-scalping incident on residential Rugby Road, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo expressed support for that pursuit.
“I find the officer’s actions to have been reasonable based on the totality of the circumstance,” Longo wrote. “Had this occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon when traffic conditions were different, I may not have come to the same conclusion.”
At a reporter's request, Augusta's Sheriff Fisher provided a copy of his internal policy manual. For misdemeanors, such as vandalism, only "low-risk" pursuits–- those with low-density cross-streets and speeds no greater than 20mph over the limits–- are permitted. In riskier situations, the policy is rendered in capital letters: "DISCONTINUE OR DO NOT PURSUE."
Confronted with this Tuesday, March 30, Fisher did not reply by deadline.